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Open Access Research article

Phylogeny of the nematode genus Pristionchus and implications for biodiversity, biogeography and the evolution of hermaphroditism

Werner E Mayer, Matthias Herrmann and Ralf J Sommer*

Author Affiliations

Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Spemannstr. 37, 72076 Tübingen, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:104  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-104

Published: 2 July 2007



The nematode Pristionchus pacificus has originally been developed as a satellite organism for comparison to Caenorhabditis elegans. A 10X coverage of the whole genome of P. pacificus is available, making P. pacificus the first non-Caenorhabditis nematode with a fully sequenced genome. The macroevolutionary comparison between P. pacificus and C. elegans has been complemented by microevolutionary studies of closely related strains and species within the genus Pristionchus. In addition, new understanding of the biology of Pristionchus from field studies, demonstrating a close association with various scarab beetles and the Colorado potato beetle, supports consideration of this nematode in studies of ecosystems. In the course of field studies on four continents more than 1,200 isolates were established from 15,000 beetle specimens representing 18 Pristionchus species. Two remarkable features of the Pristionchus – beetle association are the high species specificity of the interaction and the interception of the beetle's sex communication system for host recognition by the nematodes, as suggested by chemotaxis studies. Evolutionary interpretations of differences in developmental, behavioral and ecological patterns require a phylogenetic framework of the genus Pristionchus.


Here, we provide a robust phylogeny of all 18 available Pristionchus species based on a set of 27 ribosomal protein genes encompassing a total of 10,971 bp. The phylogenetic tree provides evidence for North American and European clades, which are embedded in a deeper clade that includes Asian species. It also indicates putative invasion events. Of the 18 Pristionchus species, 13 are gonochoristic and five are hermaphroditic. The phylogeny indicates that all hermaphroditic species have arisen independently within the genus Pristionchus.


Combined ribosomal protein cDNA data can provide the basis for reconstruction of a robust phylogenetic framework for microevolutionary and biogeographic analyses. An additional major implication of our studies is the use of Pristionchus for nematode biodiversity assessments. While some species are represented by more than 100 isolates, others were found less than four times. Such patterns were observed on all continents and in all phylogenetic clades indicating that species asymmetry is a widespread phenomenon, which can now be further investigated by molecular tools.